Saturday, November 1, 2014

Movie Review: Fury

I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I went to see Fury.  I knew it was a war movie and it was going to be violent but other than that I haven't read much about it.  It felt good going into a movie knowing very little and being surprised by it.

Fury is about a group of 5 guys who man a tank toward the end of World War II.   After one of them dies a new guy is added.  Norman (Logan Lerman) was drafted by the Army to be a typists but somehow ended up being assigned to the tank division.  There he joins the tank crew of Fury one of the best and most respected tanks.  The leader is Don 'Wardaddy' Collier (Brad Pitt) along with other crew members Boyd 'Bible' Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Grady 'Coon-Ass' Travis (Jon Bernthal), and Trini 'Gordo' Garcia (Michael Pena). Norman has never been in combat and was never trained how to operate anything in a tank. His inexperience puts the other crew members at risk and WarDaddy pushes him to the limits trying to show him the horrors of war.  The rest of the crew is pretty tough on him especially Coon-Ass. Norman needs to come to grips with his situation and decide if he is capable of killing.

The story is  pretty formulaic. You can guess how the story is going to go. The characters are familiar enough that you don't need much background on them. WarDaddy is the stern but caring leader.  Bible (as the name implies) is the moral center of the crew always quoting the bible.  Coon-Ass is the crazy one that is a loose cannon. And Gordo is somewhere in between. Despite being formulaic the movie is effective and very well directed. The war scenes are graphic and intense and really pulls you into the story. The actors all did a great job making the characters their own. Logan Lerman created a character that even though felt familiar we could really empathize with.  Brad Pitt was in typical Brad Pitt mode but always great in this type of role.  I think the real surprise here is Shia LaBeouf.  Despite appearing to go crazy this year and walking around with a bag on his head he actually did a great job in the movie.  

I have to give it to David Ayer for writing and directing a great movie.  The movie could have felt like we have seen it before. But the action is intense and the battles between tanks are like nothing we have seen on screen before.  There is a break in the action that kind of stands out where Wardaddy and Norman are in a house trying to enjoy a meal. The whole scene is uncomfortable and while I get the point of the scene I think it could have been done a little better.  But once they get back into the tank and we begin to see Norman's transformation the story picks back up.

Overall: 5/5 One of the best war movies in a long time.  Not for the faint of heart but if you like action and suspense you will love this movie. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Movie Review: Birdman

We got a chance to get to see an early screening of Birdman. It is one of the most talked about movies of the year so far and I was very excited to get to see it. And it delivered everything that was promised.

Birdman is about Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who after playing the superhero Birdman in three massively successful movies turned down the chance to play it a fourth time. Now years later he sees himself as a washed up actor and is trying to reinvent himself on Broadway. Haunted by his past he wrote and is directing and staring in a play based on a Raymond Carver short story. He is out of his element and has to deal with first time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) and her difficult actor boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Besides the troubled production he has a troubled personal life. His daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is a recovering drug addict, his new younger girlfriend is pregnant, and his lawyer and best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is worried because all their money is invested in the production and it looks like it might be a disaster.

The movie just blew me away. It is complex, kind of dark but also pretty funny. It has a bunch of pop culture references like Iron Man, The Hunger Games, and Transformers so it does feel firmly rooted in the present. It openly makes fun of Hollywood's love of over the top action and of Broadway's stuffy attitude to movie stars. It also criticizes critics who can make or break a show on their whim. But the whole thing feels very real. No one is perfect in the movie everyone has their own flaws. They are all just trying to do their best and figure out their life. I think that's one of the reasons the movie work so well. It's not that you can relate to any of the characters but you can understand their psychology. There isn't one character in the movie that feels fake. That is till the ending which is kind of odd and hard to tell what really happens.

There are a lot of moving parts to the movie but the whole thing centers around Michael Keaton's character. And Keaton delivers one of his best performances in years. It's hard not to see some similarities between Keaton and Riggan. Keaton played Batman twice then turned down the chance to do a third one. Since then he has been in very few movies. I don't want to say he is washed up but it is easy to find the similarities. Also, Edward Norton's character shares some traits to himself. Mike is a difficult actor always in the part and giving his opinions on how a scene should be done or writing his own lines. This kind of fits the persona that Edward Norton has had on previous films. Many directors have said he is difficult to work with. But Keaton and Norton both turn in excellent performances in this movie. While Keaton and Norton have stand out performances (and both potential Oscar nominees) the entire cast is pretty amazing. There is a lot of dialogue and each of them nails it and they play so well of each other. Zach Galifinakis is probably the most surprising actor in this movie and while he does add some comic relief to the movie it is way toned down from the over the top performances we are use to seeing from him. While Emma Stone and Naomi Watts are more minor characters they still leave an impression.

What really makes this movie stand out is the movie feels like one long take. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu uses of long takes and they are edited seamlessly to make the movie flow as if it was all done in one shot. The camera moves around the set and follows characters as they walk. We sometimes jump ahead in time as the camera just pans around a room. It gives the movie a kinetic feel although sometimes it was a bit dizzying like watching a found footage movie. I have not always loved Alejandro González Iñárritu's work. His 2000 Mexican film Amores Perros was a great but Babel and 21 Grams were just ok. With this movie he takes a completely different approach. While those movies dealt with different individuals whose lives interconnect in someway this movie follows just one person who has many different interactions. It's much more simplified and is easily his best work.

I can't say enough about the screenplay for this movie. Like I said there is a lot of dialogue in this movie but it all flows really well. Each character feels fully developed even if we don't spend a whole lot of time with them. I usually get worried when I see more then 2 writers on one movie but González Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr, and Armando Bo somehow worked together to make it a memorable script. I can't wait to read the script and see how they wrote it. Keeping the energy alive and writing to make it seem like one giant take must have been a huge undertaking.

The score was for the most part was just a jazz drum solo which did give the movie energy and a little bit of a different feel. And I did like what they did when there were certain fantasy sequences the music changed to a more Hollywood style score. But maybe it's just my personal music taste but the jazz score didn't entirely work for me.

Overall: 5/5 This is currently in my top spot of movies I have seen this year. I loved almost everything about. It was so well written and even though the "one take" feeling was kind of dizzying at points it was very well done. This is a must see movie.

Everyone is talking Oscars for this movie so might as well make my predictions now. It will be nominated for lots of Oscars. Best Picture, Best Actor (Michael Keaton), Best Supporting Actor (Edward Norton), Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Screenplay are almost guaranteed.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Movie Review Gone Girl

David Fincher is one of my favorite Directors and every one of his movies is an event.  Even though it took me a while to see it I finally got around to seeing Gone Girl in the theatre.  At 2 and half hours I thought it might be a long movie but it keeps you enthralled and the twists and turns keep you guessing.  It doesn’t have that dark moody feel that Seven and Fight Club had but it is a dark psychological thriller.

It’s hard to explain Gone Girl without talking spoilers since there are many twists so the synopsis is going to be brief.  The movie is about married couple Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) Dunne.  Their marriage is falling apart and on their 5th wedding anniversary Amy goes missing.  The daughter of  famous writers her disappearance gets national attention.  The detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) feels like something isn’t quite right and Nick becomes the prime suspect. Despite Nick’s firm denials the media attention turns on him and he ends up hiring Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) a high profile lawyer from New York.  Was Amy Kidnapped? Is she dead? Who did it?  These are the questions that come up and it takes some strange turns to get those answers. 

Like I said at 2 and half hours this could have been one boring movie. But the story really keeps you guessing.  There are so many surprising things that happen you are constantly saying “wow”.  The screenplay was written by Gillian Flynn based on her book.  While I haven’t read the book it seems that it is mostly faithful to the story.  But for her first screenplay she knocked it out of the park.  It is well written and with mostly believable characters that kept you guessing.  In the hands of David Fincher the movie is masterfully directed.  Getting one of the best performances out of Ben Affleck I have seen in a while.  And he took Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris two people known more for their comedies and gave them dark characters to play.  I wasn’t sure how much we would see of Rosamund Pike since she is the girl that is gone in the movie but there are flashbacks to their early relationship and her character is probably one of the most interesting characters ever on screen.  But back to Affleck. He has been in some good movies but this is by far his best role.  He plays a character that we aren’t sure if we are supposed to be empathizing with or hating.  And he treads that line so well. 

While there is going to be lots of Oscar speculation about this movie as there should be the one thing we should be able to agree on is that the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is pretty amazing and will get nominated.  Not sure if it will win like they did for The Social Network but this is probably one of the most original and haunting scores I have heard.  At one point before I saw the movie it was streaming online and I have never heard anything that sounded like it.  If the Academy wants to award originality then it will win and it perfectly set the tone for the movie and added to the suspense like any good score should do.

Overall 5/5. One of my favorite movies of the year so far. Nothing really bad I can say about it.  I loved every twist and turn and just blew me away when it started getting more and more complicated.  The ending will have people talking and can’t wait to find more people that have seen the movie so we can discuss it and that’s how you know it’s a great movie when you want to keep talking about it. 

Almost forgot to mention that if you get queasy you might have to cover your eyes at some parts. There are some graphic scenes but not too many.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Milwaukee Film Festival 2014: An Honest Liar

When I first get the Festival Program I read through every movie to see what sounds interesting. And because I believe that the film festival offers something for everyone I try to figure out what my friends would like. When I came across An Honest Liar I immediately thought of Chris. His dad was a magician and ran a magic shop so thought he would be interested. Little did I know how excited he would be. While I have never heard of The Amazing Randi I soon found out he is one of the most famous magicians. Also on a whim we thought we would see if we could get an interview with him while he was in town. Luckily we got the opportunity. 

The movie covers a lot of ground in a short 90 minutes. It starts with his career as a magician and escape artists. He quickly became one of the most prominent magicians picking up where Houdini had left off. There is even a clip from one of his first television appearances at the early days of TV.  After injuring himself trying an escape he semi retired from performances and devoted his time exposing psychics and charlatans. His main nemesis was Uri Geller who would go on TV shows and bend spoons. Randi's friendship with Johnny Carson led to a memorable show when Geller was scheduled to appear. Randi had instructed Johnny's prop department how to set up a true test for Geller. When Geller was unable to perform any of his "psychic" abilities everyone thought he was done. But still people believed and the two would go on butting heads for decades. Randi continued his crusade exposing faith healer Peter Popoff and showing how even scientists can be fooled when he hired two young magicians to fake psychic abilities in The Alpha Project. 
Each event is really interesting and could almost be a whole documentary by themselves. 

In addition to his professional career the movie gives us a glimpse into the man himself. And as one would expect he is just as fascinating in his personal life. He met his partner Jose Alverez in Florida one day and the two formed an incredible relationship. They have been together for a long time and in 2010 Randi came out and in 2013 when Gay marriage became legal federally the two got married in Washington DC. 

The movie is a fascinating look at Randi's life. Again the word amazing comes to mind. In a scant 90 minutes they cover a whole lot of ground. And if I have one complaint it's that there is so much they only briefly touch upon or leave out completely. It's understandable given the time constraint and as the director told us a good documentary leaves you wanting more. And that it did. I have now watched tons of YouTube videos featuring Randi. And the more I learn the more I am fascinated by the guy. 

Overall: 5/5 if you never heard of The Amazing Randi this is a great introduction. Even if you know about him there will be a few surprises that you didn't know.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Milwaukee Film Festival 2014: The Surface

The closing night film at the Mikwaukee Film Festival was The Surface. It was a fitting movie because it was filmed entiry in and around Milwaukee. It employed a lot of the local film community as part of the crew. Not to mention that screenwriter Jeff Gendelman is from Milwaukee. So, what better place to have the world premiere then right here at the Milwaukee Film Festival.

The Surface is about a man Mitch (Sean Astin) who feels like everything in his life is going wrong. He takes his dad's boat out into the middle of Lake Michigan to end his life. But before he can do anything he comes across a crashed plane with the pilot Kelly (Chris Mulkey) still alive. After Mitch rescues Kelly and the two are now stranded in Mitch's boat, because when Mitch hit the plane wreckage it broke the boats prop. Their relationship is strained at first. Kelly doesn't trust Mitch and both of them have secrets. But as time goes on and their chances of being rescued diminish the two realize they need each other.

There is so much that could have gone wrong with this movie. It's about two guys stuck in the middle of a lake. It could have been boring, could have been shaky and made people sea sick, or the two leads could have had no chemistry. But luckily the movie defied the odds. Everything works.

Gendelman who worked on the script for over 10 years fined tuned it so it was bare bones and had just the right amount of dialogue and reveals. It could have easily turned into a boring movie about two people talking to each other. But instead it managed to keep the tension while these two guys figure each other out. The cinematography is also spot on. It really adds to the feeling of isolation and disorientation. The lake looks beautiful as does the Milwaukee skyline. A lot of work was put into getting the best shots on the lake and it shows. That brings us to the cast. Sean and Chris do an incredible job. And based on what they said at the Q&A it was under some pretty harsh circumstances. Their chemistry is great. Each of them plays off the other one perfectly. It's so much fun to watch the two of them.

It is the themes that the movie brings up that makes the whole thing stand out. I don't want to give away any of the reveals but the movie is mostly about depression and needing a reason to live. This is the second movie I saw at the festival that handled depression well (The Other One also had themes of depression).  Here we get to see a man so desperate he wants to kill himself but hasn't had any success and something has always thwarted it. But now he meets a man who only wants to live and he is forced to reevaluate his life. The movie captures that feeling of confusion and desperation and we get to see his transformation. 

Overall 5/5 – The movie is visually stunning and emotionally engrossing.  It is definitely one to see.  There was a little subplot about a bag of money that was a little anticlimactic but didn’t take anything away from the overall movie. 

Milwaukee Film Festival 2014: The Tribe

It's hard to determine what a movie will be like based on a description in a festival program book.   But when it says it will be in Ukrainian sign language with no subtitles then you know you will be seeing something truly original.

The Tribe takes place at a deaf school where the new kid is taken in by a gang. After going through some initiation rituals he becomes a full member of the gang. This gang is part of a lot of illegal activities. They randomly beat people up and steal their liquor, they go on trains and try to steal from people, and they run a prostitution ring with a couple of the girls from the school. After the guy that pimps the girls out at a local truck stop is tragically killed the new guy replaced him. But he starts to fall in love with one of the girls and things start to fall apart for him.

Well my description of the movie is the best I can piece together from what figured out and talking to other people. With no subtitles and no music it was hard to determine what was going on.  At one point in the movie the two girls get into a fight and start arguing in sign language. I was never able to figure out what they were arguing about. 

Besides the lack of talking and sound the other issue I had was a lot of scenes felt like they went on too long and desensitized. If you are not going to have sound you better make sure you keep us interested with the action. Instead we get incredibly long takes of people walking and even the sex scenes seemed to go on too long. The camera was always a distance away and everything felt emotionless. It was hard to care for any of the characters.  Even when one of them died tragically it was treated very coldly. 

The one exception to that is the abortion scene. I don't want to go into too much detail but it was disturbing and cringe worthy. It was the one seen that really had an impact. 

While there was a lot I didn't like about the movie (and I didn't even talk about the poorly choreographed fight scene) I admire it for being brave enough to do something different. That is what I love about film festivals. You get to see all kinds of movie that you normally wouldn't see. This is a movie unlike anything you have ever seen or will ever see. 

Overall: 3/5 a very original and interesting movie but doesn't entirely work. Worth watching for the curiosity factor But if you do watch it make sure you are wide awake because the lack of sound and extremely long takes might put you to sleep. 

Like this guy who was still sleeping after the movie ended. 
Guess he found the movie boring

Sunday, October 12, 2014

“Dracula Untold” Should've Kept Quiet

Oh Dracula. What a scamp he was. Really, you'll forgive that guy for impaling thousands of people, because in this movie he's decided to forget all that and become a nice guy. Really, he's got this hot wife (Sarah Gadon, from “Belle” and completely wasted here) he's really nice to, and he's got this adorable son who he's really nice to. Better yet, that son played the youngest Stark kid, Rickon from “Game Of Thrones,” so you know he's used to being in some pretty stressful situations.

Still not sold? Well, when he takes off his shirt you can see all those awful scars on his back and know he's had a tough life. What? Well, of course you can see his abs. Yeah, they're pretty fantastic, but I wasn't even thinking about that.

But this nice guy, played this time around by Luke Evans, the Bard from “The Hobbit” movies, is mostly known as Vlad, ruler of Transylvania. He really wants peace, but those darn Turks just won't leave him alone. These guys prove they're just the opposite of Drac-I mean, Vlad, by interrupting their Easter celebration, (Gasp! Godless!) demanding their usual tribute, along with 1,000 boys for their army. This doesn't sit well with Vlad, because apparently he impaled all those people after his own father gave him to the Turks, and he was forced to become one of their soldiers. Vlad refuses to give up his son, so the Turks declare war. Vlad knows that Transylvania doesn't stand a chance against them, so he decides he must find another way to save his family and his country.

But he managed to escape from a vampire in a cave earlier (played by Charles Dance, aka Tywin Lannister from “Game Of Thrones,” how exactly do you manage to waste him??!!!), so he goes back and asks him for help. Surprisingly, he agrees, with a catch or two. If Vlad drinks his blood, he will gain great power. And if he can stop himself from drinking blood for three days, he will become human again. But if he gives in, Vlad will be a vampire forever, and the older vampire will be released from the cave he is trapped in to wreak havoc and revenge, all that bad stuff.

Desperate, Vlad agrees, and we are off pretty quick. Very quick, since when he gets back, the Turks are already attacking his castle. So yeah, he has three days to defeat the Turks, and also convince his own people not to kill him. Hijinks!

In order to enjoy this movie you have to accept a few things. Accept that Vlad doesn't go out in the day, but that later on he removes this obstacle by having clouds move over the sun. Accept the reformed bad guy who's completely good again, and thus, the Turks are all bad. And the portrayal of them? At least a little racist. Accept that “Dracula Untold” will use Vlad's historical reputation and try to justify it by saying the Turks made him do it. (I mentioned it was a little racist?) Accept that almost every scene with his wife after the transformation will have him fighting the urge to drink her blood, but he can hug his son without consequences. Accept that he can attack the Turks with a huge number of bats, and none of their little batty bodies will get damaged. Accept that after becoming a vampire, he will retain his personality, but the ones he changes will turn into clichés and decide to kill all humans. Accept that the older vampire won't do anything to Vlad until a few hundred years later?

Action movies aren't known for their sense of subtlety or light touch, so a few plot holes are to be expected. But there's just too much pileup here. The actors all do their best with what they've given, and Luke Evans has the sort of likeable charisma and the willingness to bulk up that makes action movies at least passable. The rest of the cast-including Dominic Cooper as the underexplored Sultan Mehmed-who was apparently once like a brother to Vlad and actually gives the final standoff some suspense-also give it their all, but they can't overcome sloppy, disjointed filmmaking and uneven script (that shamelessly steals from every other medieval action movie made in the last 15 years) in general. On the upside, at least Luke Evans will be relieved that his love interest doesn't have sex with Dominic Cooper like she did in “Tamara Drewe.”

This failure is not only disappointing, it's unsettling, since Universal is apparently in the midst of relaunching all of its monster movies and tying them together, “Avengers” style. The first effort, “The Mummy,” is slated to hit theaters April 22, 2016. If this is what we can expect, they'll be about as successful as DC Comics movies without Batman.

Grade: D

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Milwaukee Film Festival 2014: The Imitation Game

Heading into The Imitation Game there were lots of high expectations. It's already played at multiple festivals to lots of praise and is an early front runner for multiple Oscar awards. So,I was glad to be able to get an early peak at it during the festival. But the question was would it live up to the hype? And for the most part it did.

The Imitation Game is based on a true story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) who during World War II cracked the Enigma Code the Nazi's were using to send secret messages.  The Enigma Code was thought to be unbreakable due to the randomness of the code and the fact it changes every day.  Turing enlisted a bunch of puzzle solvers from the street including a female Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightly) to help him. With their help he builds a machine he calls Christopher, which might be the worlds first computer, to help break the code.

But the movie is than just about Turing breaking the Enigma Code. The movie is told with three simultaneous timelines. There is Alan in school, Alan in WWII, and Alan in the 1950's. The three timelines represent turning points in his life. In the school timeline we learn about how he fell in love with his classmate Christopher and how those feelings will affect him for the rest of his life.  Then we have the Enigma timeline where not only is he breaking codes to reveal secrets but also trying to protect his own secret. And even though at one point he becomes engaged to Joan it's more out of circumstance than love. In the 50's he raises the suspicion of an investigator and his secrets are threatened to be exposed again. 

While the story might seem familiar it is the way it is told that makes it feels different. We are use to seeing on screen geniuses that have no social grace and are very blunt. But here jumping back and forth between different timelines makes the story seem fresh. The screenplay by Graham Moore manages to use each timeline to build on the suspense of the others and they each have a three act structure and work as stories of their own. While it might sound like it would be confusing it works really well.  The actors also help in making the movie work. Cumberbatch and Knightly give great performances as does the supporting cast.  The entire ensemble is well cast and everyone plays their roles perfectly. The score by Alexandre Desplat really sets the movie apart also.  I appreciated the unique sound it had and was the perfect addition to the action on screen. 

Of course all of this is thanks to the great direction of Morten Tyldum.  I have never heard of him before and I think we will be hearing much more from him.  He seems to be able to get amazing performances from the cast as well as knowing how to manage the drama and still have it be funny.  That was the other thing that surprised me was how funny the movie was. He managed to tell a heartbreaking story at times while still keeping it light and throwing in a few laughs.  

The biggest problem with the movie is it feels very familiar.  You will probably see lots of comparisons to A Beautiful Mind.  Both are true stories about geniuses that don't fit in and both have secrets that get revealed.  At points in the movie it feels like Cumberbatch is just redoing what Russell Crowe did so well.  But again this is where the structure and score help the movie.  While it always feels like it has something in common with A Beautiful Mind it somehow manages to feel unique.  

Overall: 4.5/5 Great movie with great cast.  And even though it does manage to set itself apart from similar movies there are parts that make it feel like it is just repeating that same thing we have already seen.  

Friday, October 10, 2014

Milwaukee Film Festival 2014: Expedition to the End of the World

The documentary Expedition to the End of the World is a beautifully shot movie.  It is an interesting movie that takes us to part of the world that no one has seen. 

As the fjords in Greenland melt a new part of the ocean has opened up. A group of artists and scientists set out to explore this part of the world that no one has ever seen before. As they travel on the ship their eclectic personalities cone out. Their is a lot of philosophizing along with new discoveries. 

The appeal of this film is the cinematography and the scenery. The movie looks amazing. If you loved nature documentaries like "Winged Migration" and "Microcosmos" you will love this one.  But along with the scenery there is the group of people that adds another level to the movie. There is talk about the meaning of life, what it means to be an artist, and stories about being attacked by a polar bear. 

My biggest fear going into this movie was that it would be another doc about global warming. While that is an important topic I just didn't feel like sitting through another movie like that. Luckily this movie isn't about global warming. The scientists do talk about it and what it means for the future of the world it doesn't linger on it too long. And it is unavoidable to not think that without global warming their whole trip would not be possible. But while it is always there and in the back of your mind the movie focuses on exploration and the fascinating people on the trip.  

Overall: 3/5 Good movie but does get a bit dull at times and found myself losing interest at parts.  But worth checking out for the beautiful scenery.  

Milwaukee Film Festival 2014: PsychoPath

When you tell people you are going to see a movie called Psychopath they think it is going to be a scary horror movie not an inspirational movie.  But this is a documentary about a man that follows his dream and it's hard not to get inspired by that.

The story starts in 2005 when a garbage man Victor Marquez buys a piece of land in Oklahoma. With this property he sets out to build not your typical haunted hayride. He has a vision of elaborate set pieces based on popular horror movies. There is a stop based on Camp Crystal Lake from Friday the 13th, a guy with a chainsaw reminiscent of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and a puppet anaconda. His vision is grand and faces lots of problems. Besides the amount of money he is putting into the enterprise his neighbors are determined to stop it. As it gets closer to the planned opening the stress level goes up astronomically. The staff starts breaking down and Victor looks like he is going to lose his dream. But his wife Suzette stays by his side and is the rock that will do anything for Victor to see his dream come true. And after many setbacks it finally opens and every year grows. 

The movie is a great document of the American Dream. Like Field of Dreams it turns out if you build a haunted attraction they will come. The movie is inspiring and it's always great to see someone making his dream come true. But the movie is also about family. We learn about Victor's and Suzette's relationship and while it isn't always perfect they stay by each other and shows how important family is. 

Someone recently told me if a documentary leaves you wanting to know more then it did it's job. And this movie does that. There is so much more you want to know. You could just keep watching this family. 

Overall: 5/5 great movie that inspires us to follow our dreams and the power of family. 

Milwaukee Film Fest 2014: The Priest's Children

Once upon a time there was a young, green priest, Don Fabijan. (Kresimir Mikic) He was saddened by modern ways, like people having sex for pleasure rather than procreation. As such, he felt called to stem the decay of the Croatian island community he sought to lead to the light, a place where the death rate was greater than the birth rate. Then again, this feeling may have been exacerbated by the other older, universally adored priest who excelled everywhere Fabijan was awkward. So when a sheep from his flock named Petar (Niksa Butijer) came and asked him if selling condoms was a sin, he decided to cleanse the sheep of (some of) their sins. How? Well, he decided to use a needle and pierce an imperceptible hole in all the condoms sold in the community. That way, a pregnancy would truly be God's will, not man's. Along the way, they are assisted by a pharmacist and Bosnian war veteran whose time spent in Serb and Muslim camps had left him less than sane, as well as a passionate believer in increasing the Croatian population.

Stop me if you've heard this before. No? Well, I'll keep going then. Naturally, this has consequences for the island. Some they forsee, such a whole lot more pregnancies and marriages. Others they don't, such as an increase in visitors to the island, since it is believed that the high birth rates are due to currents. But darker, more tragic, consequences are also unavoidable.

As those consequences continue and pile up, what begins as laugh out loud comedy soon ends up sparking a less than comedic domino effect. A baby is abandoned in front of the church, leading Petar and his wife Martha to fake a pregnancy so they can pass it off as their own. But the giggles stop when one young woman becomes barren and another dies.

It all leaves the once idealistic Fabijan disillusioned and eager for his end, and us with a harsh indictment on a church, especially the Papacy of the former Benedict XVI, which shows us an institution and the shepherds that represent it imposing its values and the consequences thereof on the rest of the world while literally getting away with murder themselves.

It's all pulled off with excellent performances and exquisite comedic timing, while also making great use of the location and history. The problem is that the more absurdist tone at the beginning of “The Priest's Children” feels like too stark of a contrast for the much bleaker one at the end, especially for a movie that passes itself off as a comedy. Nevertheless, it stands as a very well executed cautionary tale for how our judgments against others become sins in themselves.

Grade: B-

Milwaukee Film Fest 2014: Family United

Ah, weddings. Is there any other event where the reality is so consistently different from the shiny, Perfect Day shoved down our throats by powerful propaganda machines? Hmm. Maybe birth. Or childhood. Or rather, anything to do with kids and family in general.

That said, the buildup to the wedding in “Family United” starts sweetly enough. We are introduced to the happy couple as adorable little ten-year-old moppets. Efraín, the catalyst for all the chaos and disorder to come, explains how he is the youngest of five brothers, and how life has disappointed his father (Héctor Colomé). Apparently, Dad's (Héctor Colomé) favorite movie was “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,” and believed his life was destined to resemble it. He dreamed of having seven sons and a lifetime of happiness with his wife and one true love. But he only got five, as his wife left after Efraín was born.

After Efraín recounts all this, he proposes to a girl in his class, Carla, so they can fufill his father's dream. She accepts, and quicker then you can say, “Aww,” the movie flashes forward eight years, where we learn that Efraín (Patrick Criado) is indeed marrying the now very pregnant Carla (Arancha Martí). Few are pleased about him marrying so young, and even fewer are actually happy to actually be at the wedding, seeing as how it's not only the same day as the 2010 World Cup, but their own country, Spain, is one of the finalists.

But while Efraín is confident about his decision, there are a few unsettling omens thrown his way, from a plank of wood that crashes through their van's window to a black cat at an otherwise charming ceremony where guests dance down the aisle to “Feel So Close.” But the party comes to a screeching halt when Colomé's heart fails, and he is left in a delicate, uncertain condition.

But as people are forced to learn time and again, when you plan on your life resembling a set picture, or rather a particular fiction, life is bound to fall short of your expectations. Real life tends to complicated; bad things happen for no reason, and there is nothing to do but adapt. So while the wedding is in limbo, the fault lines in everyone's lives are revealed. One brother is dating the ex of another, who has learned a shocking secret from his family and isolated himself from them. Another wants to get in the family safe and “borrow” money.

Then there's the would-be bride and groom themselves, or more to the point, Carla's twin sister Monica (Sandra Martín), who begins to form more of a connection with Efraín. Turns out, even Efraín's adorable proposal is more complicated than it initially appears, since apparently both sisters have been such a huge part of his life that he can't imagine it without both of them in it. Having a guy in the middle of a love triangle is difficult enough, so getting us to take this seriously, and tackling it in a such a sweet way (with the sisters in particular never losing sight of their bond and their love for each other) is really the film's major accomplishment. More than that, it's nice to see cinema finally approve of something different than the same old family arrangement. Here's hoping more mainstream American films follow suit too.

Grade: B+

Milwaukee Film Fest 2014: Still Life

In classic, reticent English fashion, “Still Life” does a lot with a little. It's what we call a little gem of a film, where even the colors are subdued, and, much like the Michael Haneke films “The White Ribbon” and “Amour,” a hushed tone doesn't mean a lack of passion.

“Still Life” is the character study of a council worker named John May (Eddie Marsan of “The World's End”), who has the job of finding a person's next of kin after they've passed away. When none can be found or refuse to make an appearance, he attends and oversees the funerals himself, often taking care of such details as writing the eulogy and even choosing the music that's played. He is devoted to his work and investigates each case thoroughly and exhaustively. It's remarkable to see, yet understandable, since he has much in common with the lonely people he devotes his time to: he lives a very solitary life himself, with no friends or family that we see.

May is not only the focus and center, he embodies the film's beliefs, its tone, its quiet stoicism that does what it believes is right and decent and tries to persuade others to do the same. But the outer world does not share his concerns, and he is told that his current case will be his last. It's a fitting finale, seeing how the now-deceased man lived right across from him, and the high personal and professional stakes make May more determined than ever that some friends or family must attend the last funeral he will ever devote himself to.

While sharing a similar tone to the aforementioned Haneke films, “Still Life” could also be seen as a more agnostic companion to the film “Calvary,” wherein Brendan Gleeson played a Catholic priest. Both films serve as a profound, moving meditation on death and our views of and rituals around it, as well as the lack of reverence today's world has for it in the rush for money and cutting costs. In their own ways, both argue that the lack of appreciation has profound consequences for the living, and sooner or later leads to a devaluation of them as well.

May knows he can't stem this tide, but he refuses to allow his efforts to become meaningless. Remarkably, “Still Life” never gives in to pity or maudlin displays. Its message is that of respect and empathy. Yet the movie refuses to turn away from the tragic emptiness that life can bring. May's efforts and the subsequent fruits of his labors unfold in a slow burn that culminates into one of the most touching and beautiful final scenes that I have ever seen on film. It's powerful enough that it actually upsets me that “Still Life” doesn't have its own Wikipedia page. Something this perfectly executed should have more of an audience.

Grade: A+

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Milwaukee Film Fest 2014: Young And Beautiful

One thing you really have to admire the French for is tricking its audiences into believing that the softcore porn they're watching is actually an art house film. Take “Farewell, My Queen,” which appeared non-exploitative even while tossing in a lesbian romance that apparently wasn't even in the book it was based on. So I certainly have to tip my hat for almost making “Young And Beautiful” look like anything other than what it is: a male fantasy which is a mere money shot away from any run-of-the-mill Internet smut.

The title is very apt, however. The girl, Isabelle, (the very talented Marine Vacth) is certainly young, only seventeen. And she is certainly, almost impossibly beautiful. So beautiful it almost seems natural that she would want to profit from it. When we first meet her, we see more of her than we expected (in the first two minutes anyway). Indeed, the film quickly forces its audience to become voyeurs, since she is framed through an onlooker's binoculars, making us vicarious spies as she removes her top to sunbathe. Plus, the person who was spying on her? That was her little brother, who also peeks in when she happens to be, um, pleasuring herself. Soon, we see her lose her virginity to a boy she's not even particularly fond of, which leaves her cold and disillusioned. When she returns home, she also accidentally sees her stepfather naked. It all seems like a bit much.

Since “Young And Beautiful” aims to show, not tell, the character development will be a bit light, but it shouldn't be so nearly nonexistent. Right after Isabelle loses her virginity and leaves her family's charming vacation spot, we next see her heading to a motel room for her first paid tryst. So yeah, this girl just decides to become a prostitute, and we don't see when she made the decision, how she got the idea, or why she decided to take such an extreme step. To the film's credit, she's not depicted as sick or suffering from daddy issues, and she's still a somewhat inept 17-year-old even when she gets some experience under her belt.

And you wonder why conservatives are so afraid of the French. Heck, after seeing this, I'm almost afraid of the French.

But the beautiful thing about these types of French films is that they simultaneously take sex so seriously and so casually that it makes us forget our hysteria over an act that is as much a part of our lives as breathing. But by placing so much emphasis on the act and on Isabelle's outer rather than inner life holds “Young And Beautiful” from becoming the thoughtful, intelligent film it was obviously meant to be. Instead, you'll be baffled when that little brother mentioned above helps her with her makeup, and sleeps in her bed so he can press her for details about her date. Also, will she ever stop pouting and smile? And smirking doesn't count!

Writer-director François Ozon previously explored illicit, unsettling desire in a previous film, and another Milwaukee Film Festival alum, “In The House.” But “Young And Beautiful” left me feeling confused about what he was trying to accomplish. When Isabelle eventually does get discovered and has to face the consequences of her choices, even that isn't depicted well. How is it, exactly, that only her parents and a few of their friends find out, while no one at her school does? That seems far-fetched, especially in our new digital age, where a single remark can quickly spread to thousands or millions of people via social media. The intentions are good, even fascinating, but they don't even come close to being fulfilled.

Grade: D

Milwaukee Film Fest 2014: The Overnighters

One constant throughout history is that someone always has to be the scapegoat, particularly when times get tough. That's when such ugly beliefs like Hispanic immigrants steal American jobs, and other charming bits of racism, gain wide circulation.

It's often the poorest among us who are blamed the most. The rich may occasionally lose their jobs, sometimes even go to prison for their crimes, but those who have the least have fewer defenses, connections, and resources, and thus are easier targets. And giving into the vices that haunt their class is a constant temptation for the extremely rich and extremely poor.

Solutions are rarely easy, especially when the gulf between the two widens and becomes embedded in everyday life. And when there's an influx of new poor, things become that much more complicated.

“The Overnighters” shows what happens when one small town is forced to grapple with such forces, which are inevitably bigger than everyone caught in the midst of them and can prevent the best of us from seeing clearly. Such is the situation of the residents of Williston, North Dakota, which becomes a prime destination for desperate men who hear of well-paying jobs in the oil fields. Naturally, they are the subject of fear and suspicion among the locals, and not all of their fears are unwarranted. Desperate times tend to breed similarly desperate men, and the local paper tells of the worst of their actions.

So when local pastor Jay Reinke decides to use his church to offer some of the men a place to sleep and eat, it doesn't go over well. Unasked for new things are particularly scary, particularly when they come to a small town that's only used to one set of people. It leads to one of the more humorous scenes where Pastor Reinke advises one of the men to cut his hair so he'll be less offensive to the locals.

“Did Jesus have short hair?” the man asks.

“Jesus doesn't have our neighbors,” Reinke replies.

While many of the locals aren't depicted well, the camera spares no one, even those most in need. Assisting them is sometimes made more difficult by the men themselves, and when Reinke is forced to cut ties with a few of them, some of them even decide to seek revenge. Then it's discovered that some of these men are even sex offenders.

However, others aren't even homeless. They come to Williston with no place to go, but many have left behind homes, even families, that they cannot support in the towns they come from. One talks about how well things are going for him in his sparser than sparse surroundings. Keegan Edwards, from Antigo, Wisconsin gets a good job, then is sidelined by an injury, and his father tells him not to come back home to the lack of opportunities that drove him away. The heart is broken again and again when stories such as these are told.

But much of the focus is put on Pastor Reinke himself, who at first is depicted as almost saintly, but there's even a few shocking revelations in the documentary's third act that gives us a much more complex man, as well as more insight into why is able to empathize with broken men so completely.

This refusal to sugarcoat anyone makes “The Overnighters” all the more poignant as an examination of the best and worst we are capable of. The end result is a thoughtful, intelligent documentary with no easy answers, or really any answers at all. Rather, it is writer-director Jesse Moss's shout into the void that is global economics, a call that pleads for empathy and tolerance for those who cannot speak for themselves (even with all their flaws on full display) and rarely have a voice when such issues are discussed.

However, the film's focus on even such a compulsively watchable man as Reinke has its drawbacks as well. The end credits, where some of the more overlooked men introduce themselves to the camera, indicate an even greater story. Some of these men hail from places as far away as Africa. How many of these issues are due to racism as well? How does a man journey from Ghana to Williston, North Dakota? It made me wish the camera had lingered on more of the overnighters, since their presence indicates there's even more to the story than even the humane treatment here covered.

Grade: A-

Milwaukee Film Fest 2014: Mystery Road

There are smart films. And then there are smaaart films, wink, wink. You know. The kind where you calmly, wisely, nod and say, “Oh, yes, it was perfectly clear what was going on.” After all, no one wants to be the first to say the Emperor has no clothes. Typically, people who mention this kind of film usually say something about slow burn, and that's something you can honestly agree with. Slooow the pot left to simmer, like an Ice Age receding, like....

You get the idea. Luckily, there are still plenty of good reasons to approve of “Mystery Road.” It makes no attempt to hide its obvious roots in American cinema, notably the western, mainly because it in no way diminishes the full-blooded, purely Australian characters and bleak rural landscape they tear around in.

Detective Jay Swan (the astonishing Aaron Pederson, here's hoping we get to see more of him) is a rookie Aboriginal detective called in to investigate the murder of a local, also Aboriginal girl in the hometown he thought he'd escaped. He may be inexperienced, but soon proves to be no slouch as he looks into the crime while uncomfortably straddling two worlds. He is the subject of barely concealed contempt of the all-white police force, as well as the contempt of the indigenous locals, some of whom view him as a sellout, a traitor, or worse.

As he digs deeper, he finds evidence of corruption on the police force, and must cope with the desperation of the many inhabitants who feel they have few options and even less to lose. (From what I gather, Australian Aborigines seem to share much of the same history and fate of our American Indians.) Most of what he uncovers hits home professionally and personally, as he discovers his teenage daughter also seems to have picked up some very bad habits.

Of course, just like every dance movie has its epic dance-off that solves everything, “Mystery Road” must build to a spectacular shootout, wherein the fates of every major character will be decided. Even if you can't figure out why it happened, and why exactly certain people are shooting at the hero, it's still one of the masterfully orchestrated standoffs I've seen.

If only the film left more bread crumbs to follow, and cleared up a few loose ends. Most of the questions can be answered by checking out the “Mystery Road” Wikipedia page, but not all. Really, what was the deal with those frigging dogs they kept talking about?

Grade: B+

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Milwaukee Film Fest 2014: Heli

“Heli” has a few things in common with another entry in this year's film festival, “The Missing Picture.” In the latter, we are shown a horrific portrait of how things were during the Pol Pot dictatorship. “In the former, we are shown a horrific portrait of how things ARE, now in Mexico during the woefully ineffective War On Drugs. As such, the filmmakers do not tell their story through animation, dioramas, or any other medium that serves to bring any comfort or mercy to our viewing experience.

The title refers to an ordinary young man (Armando Espitia) trying to eke out a living for himself and his family that includes his father, his wife and their infant son, and his twelve-year-old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara). He and his father are both factory workers, and are depicted as a somewhat naïve, working-class family struggling to stay afloat and build a better life for themselves.

However, everything changes when Estela allows her seventeen-year-old police cadet boyfriend (that she is actually planning to run away with and marry) to stash stolen drugs at her home, unbeknownst to the rest of her family. Soon, Heli and those around him are pulled into the brutal world of illegal drug trafficking. It is a world that is all the more horrifying for being depicted in such a realistic and natural way.

Teenage boys sit and watch (and eagerly anticipate putting on YouTube) men being beaten, their genitals burned, while a woman calmly works in the kitchen in the next room. Corrupt soldiers break into a home and snap a puppy's neck. A young man is hung from a bridge.

Such are the horrifying realities onscreen here, which taints and twists those it does not kill. Its refusal to pull punches resembles “The Counselor,” but while that movie focused on the top, this is the view from the bottom, in the very trenches where the war is being fought. It may be difficult to witness, particularly when we see the gentle young Heli's loss of innocence as he learns just how helpless he and his loved ones (as well as the police) are in such a maelstrom of events greater than perpetrators and victims alike. Such events could easily become exploitative, but the acting is top-notch, the cinematography is fantastic, and circumstances build and unfold in an unsentimental way that refuses to yield to melodrama.

And yet, “Heli” isn't a completely depressing ride, with an ending that seems to signal a new generation that could yet emerge, one untouched and untainted, that could yield a better future. Of course, that all depends on if its audience can stand to watch.

Grade: A-

Milwaukee Film Fest 2014: Serial Daters Anonymous

I think I just had one of the most unsatisfying moviegoing experiences of my life. The disappointment is all the more poignant, since “Serial Daters Anonymous” was shot in Milwaukee, and it actually makes the city look good. I generally go easy on local films, even the ones that I dislike, for the simple fact that they're rarer, usually made on a shoestring budget, and one can tell that even the most atrocious of them involve quite a bit of time and love. But I suppose there's a first time for everything, and this is my first time finding a local movie that I despise.

It revolves around a familiar scenario: a woman who is disappointed with her love life. But Claire (Louise Linton) has better reason than most, after she learns at the altar no less, that her fiance cheated on her. With her sister. Ouch.

After she ditches her fiance at said altar, this inspires her to write the titular blog, where she seeks to expose her dates for the horrible men she believes they are. That's where the trouble starts, and where I am naturally bound by my position as critic to explain the (in this case many) ways the film errs in its mission. The trouble is where to begin.

First, there is Claire herself. Naturally, she is going to be abrasive and rather disillusioned after such a blow. But not only does writer-director Christopher Carson Emmons fail to write compelling female characters, it seems he continually misses the mark when it comes to the storytelling. The result is that Claire comes off as a spoiled, entitled daddy's girl (a word that rhymes with witch also comes to mind), while the men come off as well-meaning victims who suffer as a result of her judgmental, uncaring actions. Even her cheating fiance is depicted better than her. Worse, the inevitable love interest that just might make her stop hating men is certainly no catch, while the nice guy who should be her love interest is seemingly forgotten about, then used for a tacked-on, bizarre plot twist. Oh, and the sister that sleeps with the fiance? She is even more flippant about the act than he is, and the nature of Claire's relationship with her sister is never discussed, nor does her sister ever appear again. Nope, “Serial Daters Anonymous” is strictly about how Claire interacts with the men.

Then there's the bizarre slut-shaming in a movie where the heroine HAS NO SEX WHATSOEVER. But apparently, an interview where it kind of sounds like Claire sleeps with her dates is enough to warrant a scolding from her mother and the potential shame of her father.

Then there's the transitions, which feel rather bizarre, the lighting, the other characters, even her best friend, who stops sympathizing with her when it becomes inconvenient for her and her downright weird sexual misadventures, and...well, just the script in general. Every scene feels like a missed opportunity, especially the climax, were all the men she dated are gathered together in one room, but they are literally stripped of their ability to say a word.

There is only one good thing about “Serial Daters Anonymous,” and that is in the way it depicts Milwaukee itself. It actually makes this city out to be a large, bustling metropolis, and all the perks thereof, which is a welcome change of pace. But if you actually want to enjoy a (mostly) locally made movie, I'd recommend something like “The Amateur Monster Movie” or “Deliver This.” Both are up on YouTube for free, and offer a much better local movie experience.

Grade: D-

Friday, October 3, 2014

Movie Review -The Other One- Milwaukee Film Fest

My first attempt to write a short screenplay I wanted to try to capture the feeling of depression. Josef Steiff set out to do the same thing in his screenplay for The Other One and succeeded. On the surface it's a creepy ghost story but as he explained at the Q&A after the film at it's heart  it really is the story of four women dealing with grief and depression. 

The movie is about Amber (Grace McPhillips who also produced) a high school teacher who after a traumatic event that inured her and killed her husband moves back home to take care of her mom.  Her mom Vera (Nancy Sellers) is suffering from dementia and is a pathological liar. When Amber starts to uncover secrets from her families past it's hard to tell if what Vera says is another lie or part of the dementia. Also who are the spirits that seem to be haunting the house? Being home also brings up other issues. Amber must now confront her in-laws for the first time since her husband died. All of this while she is still processing her own loss and feelings about what happened. 

The movie is slow and deliberately paced. It is not your typical ghost story. The beginning of the movie is almost exclusively Amber and Vera. Then other characters are slowly introduced.   It manages to keep the intensity and has a few jump scares. The lady next to kept gasping and everyone was on the edge of their seats. The mystery keeps you wondering and thinking as the movie only gives you a few clues at a time and lets you piece it together.  But it's always the relationship between the women that moves the story along.

At the Q&A it was also mentioned that this movie is meant for multiple viewings to pick up all the details. While I admire that, I wish there were a few more details explained better. There is a fine line between having the audience figure things out and force feeding the audience the information. Unfortunately I think it just barely misses the mark. I am not sure general audiences will have the patience to think about it or be willing to revisit the movie. For me it works and had me thinking about it for days. All of the details about her family secret is never fully explained but if you pay close enough attention you can figure it out. 

Overall: 4/5 I really liked this movie. The mood and pace were on target. The actors all did a great job and the score matched the movie perfectly.  The mystery was interesting. Just wish there were more clues to help us piece everything together. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Milwaukee Film Fest 2014: Things Never Said

Much like the woman who is the subject of the film about to be discussed, “Things Never Said” had a few tough tasks. One, it had to get people to take spoken-word poetry as seriously as its characters do, when it's an art form that's easy to parody. Two, it had to get us to be sympathetic with a woman who cheats on her husband. This is never easy to accomplish without sinking into overwrought melodrama, but women, especially black women, really get the short end of the stick in this regard. (Tyler Perry, please stay in drag if it'll keep you from making disgusting, regressive crap like “Temptation: Confessions Of A Marriage Counselor.” And the upcoming “Addicted” doesn't look much better.)

But “Things Never Said” not only manages to keep the melodrama at bay, it actually makes the characters in front of the lens feel as real as they come, even if the world they inhabit is foreign to many of us. But thanks to writer-director Charles Murray's beautiful script, the characters are as compelling as the poems they compose and recite.

Then again, perfect casting never hurts, and here we have the intensely charismatic Shanola Hampton, who plays Kalindra Stepney, an aspiring LA poet who is unhappily married to a man even more frustrated than she is, still mourning the athletic dreams that were destroyed by an injury. Her burgeoning talent attracts his ire and jealousy, as well as a new admirer named Curtis (Omari Hardwick), himself an aspiring poet with plenty of past behind him. They strike up a tentative romance, and she must decide to stay where everyone (including her own mother) expects her to be, or take a chance on a new path.

Audiences have seen this happen before and where it leads, but rarely in such style. We generally disagree with the actions of the people that populate “Things Never Said,” but that rarely stops us from empathizing with them, even in the case of Kalindra's abusive husband Ronnie. Of course, in a story like this, we get a new romance so the sensitive lover can provide a welcome contrast to the abuse the woman is subjected to. Said lover usually risks being too good to be true, but the fact that this one is named Curtis Jackson (the birth name of 50 Cent) actually provides some welcome comic relief. And he's another charismatic one with the acting chops (and shirtless scenes) to pull it off.

But it keeps other staples of the genre at bay enough to where we don't know if they're going to be fulfilled or not. (Will there be an epic confrontation between the old and the new lover? Will certain characters ever come around? I honestly didn't know.) Ronnie's abuse feels more frightening for it being depicted so realistically, and even minor characters such as Kalindra's mother serve their purpose, and explain how a woman could see putting up with years of relationship toxicity as strength. What results is stories we may have seen, but people who aren't often portrayed, especially with this much skill. Here's hoping we see more of it.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Movie Review "Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists" Milwaukee Film Festival 2014

Day 2 of the Milwaukee Film festival saw me going with my artist friend to see the movie about the Hairy Who.  Not really being into the art scene I had no idea who they were and what they did so I was going into the movie blind.  Which is one of the reasons why I love film festivals to see movies I normally wouldn't see and step out of my comfort zone.

So who are the The Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists? Well they are a collection of artists with various styles who got together in Chicago in the 60's.  With influenced that range from abstract and surrealism, to comic books and advertisements.  Their artwork was like something people had never seen before and even though there were some graphic pictures they became popular with local collectors.  The incubator for the Imagist was the New Hyde Park Gallery which celebrated local and upcoming artists.  The Hairy Who was just the start and a few other collectives followed.  Their work separated them from other contemporaries in New York and San Francisco and came to represent the Midwest.

The movie is a very informative art history lesson and the artists themselves are very interesting.  But not having an interest in art I felt a little bored.  There were a lot of things that influenced these artists but not having that background  knowledge of who they were talking about it didn't mean much to me. While I can't appreciate the technical aspect of the craft I can appreciate the aesthetics. While some were bizarre there were some that looked really cool. So I do admire them for doing what they wanted to do and not compromising.

Overall: 3/5. An art history buff would love this movie but just wasn't for me. My artist friend who saw it with me loved it. So if art is your thing then this is worth checking out. But if art isn't your thing you might want to skip it.   

Jim Wirsum-Screamin' Jay Hawkins-1968

Ed Paschke-Minnie-1974
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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Movie Review "1971" Milwaukee Film Fest 2014

"1971" is a powerful story about a pivotal event that I was unaware of.  In 1971 a group of citizens calling themselves "The Citizens Commision to Investigate the FBI" broke into an FBI office and stole documents. These documents proved that the FBI was spying on their own citizens.  Sound familiar?  Well the movie couldn't be more topical in the age of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden.  It raises the questions were they heroes or just criminals.  Their actions predated Watergate and in some ways probably helped pave the way for the Watergate scandal.

The event in question was the break in at an FBI Field office in Media Pennsylvania.  A group of citizens that were never caught stole the files and anonymously mailed them to various newspapers.   What was the FBI doing? Well they were spying on citizens.  They had undercover agents in different groups that they felt might be "anti-America".  Groups like the Black Panthers, Anti War groups, Women groups, and hippies.  Not only were they spying on them but they were attempting to disrupt the groups by spreading rumors and making people feel paranoid. This was at a time when the FBI had very little or no oversight and a lot of public support.

How did "The Ctizens Commision to Investigate the FBI" get their start? Well before the became the commission they were a group of anti war demonstrators in Philadelphia.  They heard about an attempted break in at an FBI office in Rochester NY.  That break in was stopped and that group was arrested.  What the group in Philadelphia decided to do was break into a field office that had very little security.  They also decided to do it on the night of the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fight of the century so most people were distracted.  Their success was largely due to their thorough preparations and good timing.  What they did not know till much later was how big of an impact they would have on the country. 

The Washington Post was the only paper that had the courage to publish the files.  Nothing like this had happened before and since the files where stolen all the other papers decided to give them back to the FBI.  But the Washington Post decided that the info in the stolen papers were too important not to publish.  After they were published Anericans and politicians were shocked by what they found out. And the FBI went on a giant manhunt to capture the people responsible. But they were never caught.  The members remained a mystery till now when they decided to tell their story.  And what a story it is  

The documentary has interviews with the members along with home footage they took and reinactments.  It is expertly put together to tell their story.  The recreations are seemless and really helps you feel the tension.  The story of Bonnie and John Raines is one of the more powerful stories in the documentary.  While most of the other members were younger Bonnie and John were married and had children.  They knew if they got caught they would go to jail for a long time and leave their kids parentless.  The fact that they still chose to do it is amazing and kind of unimaginable if you are a parent. Their decision adds another level of intensity to the story and keeps us on the edge of the seat. The movie also has tons of humor that breaks up the intensity and makes the whole experiance a fun ride similar to a Hollywood thriller. 

In the end their actions opened the eyes of the country and the government.  Congressional hearings were formed and J. Edgar Hoover's unquestioned authority came to an end.  The FBI now had to follow stricter rules and Congress formed an oversight committee.  These rules stayed in place till the Patriot Act repealed some of them.  We now live in a time when we never know who is watching us.  It makes you pause and reflect on how far are we willing to let the government go to make us feel safe.  It was pointed out that them not ever being found probably helped the story stay focused on the FBI and it makes you wonder if Edward Snowden would have had better success if he had remained anonymous. Instead of hearing where he is hiding maybe we would still be talking about what he revealed. 

Bonnie and John Raines were in attendance at the screening and did a Q&A at the end. It was interesting to hear them talk about what they did and how difficult their decision was. But their views on current events was the most interesting. They see Snowden as a modern day hero. One of the quotes from John was"A nation governed by fear is a poorly governed nation".  Basically citizens should not feel like they are constantly being spied on.  

Overall 5/5-a great documentary that plays out like a thriller.  Keeps you on the edge of your seat and laughing.  Not only that it teaches you a history lesson and the power a few people can have.